Cooks, Crooks and Social Media Ethics

17 11 2010

Like most people, I was taught as a young child that cheating is wrong and that you don’t want to do wrong things.  In those days, cheating was clear: you didn’t look at other people’s spelling tests, you didn’t “collaborate” on individual homework and you didn’t claim someone else’s work as your own.  Most schools and universities have their own specific definitions for academic integrity and what counts as plagiarism, and crossing those lines can lead to harsh ramifications.  It’s hoped by teachers and parents alike that these lessons in honesty translate to personal and professional practices as adults. However, we also live in a hyper-shareable ecosystem, where it’s never been so easy to reproduce and distribute content from others. In a field as unregulated as the internet, problems are bound to arise. But such actions still have consequences.

Recently, Cooks Source magazine felt the blazing anger of bloggers as they crowded around in defense of Monica Gaudio, whose article about apple pie had been reproduced without her

knowledge or consent. In the storm of nasty emails and facebook messages, there were many rumor stories flying about, but two facts that surfaced remain relatively unchallenged:

1. The editor of Cooks Source didn’t believe that they had done anything wrong.

2. This was not an isolated incident of “borrowing”.

In my mind, this seems like a clear case of plagiarism.  Gaudio had not given her permission for her work to be reprinted and Cooks Source acknowledged that they knew it was her uncompensated work.  But it’s rare that cheating scandals are so black and white. If getting permission from and compensating bloggers for their articles is at one end of the spectrum and this recent incident with Cooks Source is at the far other end of the spectrum, where does one draw the line? In the context of online blogs and communities, where does cheating actually begin (or even end)?

Most of the time, it can be assumed that works that have the author’s consent and are properly attributed, are okay.  It’s also commonly accepted to link out to other sites in the body of a blog (in fact, the blogger’s code of ethics demands it). What if I find an interesting article and post a link to it on my website or facebook page because I believe that my readers would find it interesting?  Since the link would take you to the original posting which would clearly delineate it as content from that other site, that is also going to be okay.  Many bloggers also offer a specific link for you to use when you want to trackback to a certain entry. Okay, but then what about tools like paper.li which drags twitter, looking for the most disseminated articles and then shapes it into a familiar format?  Is that an abuse of information gathering or not? The more you explore, the more gray areas you uncover. There are a thousand different potential situations, but content ownership and authorial rights must be taken seriously.

This is not a new issue, but one that has gained even more importance over the last few weeks.  Most people don’t want to do something that is wrong and get angry when they find out about shortcuts that were taken by others, as can be seen by the sanctioning of Cooks Source by the blogging community.  It’s apparent that even after posting an apology and taking down their Facebook page, Cooks Source may never really move beyond this plagiarism scandal. (If you’re interested in seeing the massacre that was their Facebook page, there are a number of saved screen snapshots in Google images.) So how to avoid such difficult situations?

1. Make sure you know that your practices are on the up and up by reviewing the copyright laws.

2. If you are afraid that your content may not be safe, set up a Google Alert to help you find places where your name and keywords are popping up.

3. If you’re a blogger, review the sites suggested by O’Reilly a few years ago as examples of appropriate professional behavior online.

4. Finally, no matter who you are, writer, editor or reader, practice digital literacy and seek, evaluate and credit the original source.

So tell me, where and how do you draw the line when sharing online content?

Thanks to ilovebutter and quinnanya for use of their images.

~Laura

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